Brad Gushue shoots a stone during the opening draw of the Players' Championship on April 9, 2019, in Toronto. (Anil Mungal)

Players’ Championship establishing curling legacy in Toronto

April 9, 2019, 9:45 PM

TORONTO — Glenn Howard gets goosebumps just walking into Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre never mind actually curling on the ice in the historic building formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens.

Although the Toronto Maple Leafs moved down the street to Scotiabank Arena two decades ago and the building has been fully renovated, when Howard looks up at the ceiling — as he did Tuesday night after practice for the Players’ Championship — the memories coming here as a kid with his dad return in a flash.

“I was alive the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup in ’67, so I’m dating myself,” Howard said with a laugh. “It’s surreal. They did an unreal job. When you look up, the roof is the same as when I was a kid. We’re curling at about midway of the greys at old Maple Leaf Gardens, it’s just a really, really cool building and gives you goosebumps just thinking you’re curling on these hallowed grounds.”

What was once famous as hockey’s historic shrine is now building a curling legacy. This is the fifth consecutive season and sixth time in seven years Mattamy Athletic Centre has hosted the Players’ Championship.

It’s a fitting setting for the most prestigious event of the series with not only a combined $300,000 total purse on the line — split equally between the men’s and women’s divisions — but also the Pinty’s Cup, which is awarded to the overall season champions and carrying a $75,000 bonus for the winners.

Brad Gushue likened it a bit to golf’s Masters, held annually at Augusta National, where players enter knowing it’s a big event on a big stage.

“People are pretty motivated when you get here so you get good games, you get very competitive games, high-intensity games,” said the skip from St. John’s, N.L. “It’s a lot of fun, it is 100 percent honestly my favourite event year in and year out. I just enjoy playing in downtown Toronto, I enjoy the atmosphere here and I enjoy the building here.”

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One may not immediately think of Toronto as a curling hotbed but as the event has settled in roots and grown, so too has the atmosphere.

“I think over the years Toronto has been given a bad rap about not being great fans for curling, well, I’ve got news for you, even here on a Tuesday night the place was half-full,” Howard said. “I think it’s going to be great and get better and better as the week goes on.

“The fans are amazing. You talk to anybody from across the world and they want to come here and play. Being here in Toronto, downtown Toronto, and to this building is surreal and it’s fantastic. So glad that we keep coming here for the Players’.”

The Players’ Championship can be seen as a destination event right in the heart of downtown Toronto with plenty of food and entertainment options to keep curlers and fans occupied between draws.

“There’s a lot of curling clubs in the GTA and you have people flying in here too because it is downtown Toronto,” Gushue said. “You don’t generally mix downtown Toronto with curling, it doesn’t seem to fit, but you get some people travelling to this event because there are so many other things to do outside of curling.

“It’s springtime, there are so many positives to play this event. Some of the reasons I love it, the restaurants around here are great, it’s warmer than it is at home so we get a break from the freezing temperatures to come up here. Now it’s only six or seven degrees but it’s a nice break. I certainly hope it stays here. It’ll be great for the Grand Slam series as a whole and certainly for the Players’ Championship.”

Both Howard and Gushue have skipped their respective teams to Players’ Championship title wins at Mattamy Athletic Centre. Howard was victorious the first time the venue held the event in 2013 by making a double takeout with the last rock of the game to score two points for the 4-3 win over Mike McEwen.

“I think how cool it was to be able to play in this and then to win is over and above,” Howard said. “I literally get goosebumps just walking in here let alone winning it. The fact we did that was the cream of the crop.”

Gushue’s triumph over Brad Jacobs in the 2016 final was quite possibly the highest stakes game in series history. Jacobs needed to win the title in order to qualify for the season-ending Humpty’s Champions Cup while Gushue, who had already clinched the Pinty’s Cup (then known as the Rogers Grand Slam Cup), was aiming for the one Grand Slam major that had eluded him up to that point.

“I remember it was a pressure-packed game,” said Gushue, who outlasted Jacobs 5-4. “It felt like really the final of the Brier or any other big championship final like the trials. It was intense, both of us wanted to win. I remember him coming up light in seven and would have tied the game. We still would have had hammer coming home, which was nice but to get that one-point cushion made it a little bit easier.

“It was nice to finish off the Grand Slam in that fashion and to do it at the Players’ Championship while winning the Rogers Cup, that was pretty cool.”

Gushue, Nichols reflect on memories of Cole

Maple Leaf Gardens was also where Bob Cole delivered many of his memorable play-by-play calls. The soundtrack to so many Saturday nights on Hockey Night in Canada, Cole signed off for the last time this past weekend after a legendary career in the broadcast booth.

Cole was also a curler and skipped Newfoundland at the Brier twice in the 1970s. He was also a big fan of his fellow Newfoundlanders Team Gushue and they developed quite the bond over the years.

Gushue said he got emotional watching the final game as the Montreal Canadiens clipping the Leafs in a shootout.

“It was absolutely so fitting that it went to overtime and I think what they did was great. Greg Millen stayed quiet and let Bob do the whole thing,” Gushue said. “I thought it was so cool. Bob doesn’t like the attention that he got surrounding this but he deserved it. Fifty years, he’s been the voice of hockey.

“I just love to listen to his voice and even just talking to him. Even though we became friends in the last number of years, just speaking with him it’s cool hearing that voice. It’s the voice I grew up on watching Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights. I’m going to miss not having him call those games but boy oh boy what a career he had.”

Team Gushue third Mark Nichols also grew up listening to Cole and called him an icon in Newfoundland across Canada.

“To know that he’s a great curler in his own right, he’s a big fan of our team, someone that cheered for us as we were growing up through the junior ranks and … he was in Italy at the Olympics to cheer us on and that’s why he went over, so there is a lot of history between our team and him,” Nichols said. “It’s cool to see him do as well as he did, he’s got quite the long career and still doing such a great job. I’m sure he’s going to enjoy retirement but still do as much as he can. I wish him all the best. He’s a great man and someone I know our team looks up to.”

Now, could Cole return to his roots and do play-by-play for a game for the Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling? Gushue said he’d love it.

“I’ve had an opportunity to do a little bit of curling commentary and boy would it be cool if he’d do the play-by-play and I’d be the analyst,” Gushue said. “That would be a dream come true for me. I think he loves curling just as much as he loves hockey. He’s passionate about the sport and passionate about our team. He’s one of our biggest supporters. I’d love to see him get into curling but it’s probably a little late for that.”

Draw 1 recap: Gushue gets by Epping to start

Gushue kicked off the Players’ Championship in the win column defeating the hometown favourites Team John Epping 4-1 during Tuesday night’s opening draw.

“I thought we handled the ice pretty good for our first game in about a month,” Nichols said. “It was nice to get off to a good start.”

After a blank to start, Gushue converted with the hammer in the second end drawing for a deuce and tacked on an extra point in the third as Epping was unable to remove the shot rock and conceded a steal.

Epping got on the board with a single in five and Gushue replied adding another point in seven although it was a bit of a missed opportunity as he attempted a draw for two on his last but came up light and tight and settled for one.

Still, the three-point gap was too much for Epping to overcome and with nowhere to hide Gushue ran him out of stones.

Elsewhere, Team Brad Jacobs of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., also got off to a good start downing Regina’s Team Matt Dunstone 6-2.

In women’s action, Team Robyn Silvernagle of North Battleford, Sask., rallied back with a deuce in eight and stole in the extra end to edge Ottawa’s Team Rachel Homan 5-4.

Team Kerri Einarson of Gimli, Man., took two in the eighth end to top Japan’s Team Satsuki Fujisawa 6-4.

Notes: The Players’ Championship is the sixth event and fourth major of the 2018-19 Pinty’s Grand Slam of Curling tour. … Round-robin action resumes Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET. Teams are split into two pools for round-robin play with the best eight overall qualifying for the weekend playoffs. … Broadcast coverage begins Thursday at Noon ET on Sportsnet and streaming online at Sportsnet NOW (Canada) and Yare (international).